The National Park Service issued the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment last week, and if all the proposed improvements are carried out, it should make for a vastly improved trail experience. NPS identified three alternatives for the trail itself and two sets of options for smaller elements. In every case their preferred alternative will lead to a better trail.
That is not to say that it will build the trail that everyone wants. In a few places the trail will remain difficult or narrower than AASHTO guidelines would recommend. The Park service felt that widening the trail to 10 feet for its entire length would cause "adverse impacts to sensitive park resources, particularly from the segment north of Piney Branch Parkway to north of the National Zoo." Another alternative to build to 8 feet with a 2 foot soft shoulder would be even worse they determined.
Another source of disappointment has to do with the Zoo. Many asked that the Zoo keep its gates open at night to allow commuters to bypass the tunnel. But according to the Zoo, from a meeting this past summer, gate closure is required to maintain accreditation with the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA). That seems like an odd requirement and no further details are given, but perhaps an enterprising young journalist will contact the AZA to make a story out of it. Also odd, is that when the NPS dismissed lighting on the trail they did so, in part, because the park is closed from dusk till dawn which seems to imply that the trail is also closed. Which leads me to ask why they even pursued the opening of the zoo trail section - and why the trail would be closed but the road open?
The last major disappointment is that there will be no direct connection from the trail to Harvard Street. The project team decided that the short sight lines and "other safety concerns" would make it unsafe.
But despite these spots where things did not go the way many trail advocates and users wanted, there are numerous trail improvements to be excited about, including:
Wider, repaved surfaces - Of the 3.7 miles of trails that currently exist, the report notes that it is mostly 10 feet wide north of Piney Branch and 8 feet wide south of there, with a few narrower portions. The new design will widen the trail to 10 feet for everything but a small section from the Zoo to Piney Branch with a few other small exceptions. The Rose Park Trail will be widened from 4 feet to 6 feet and the Piney Branch Parkway trail would be widened from 4.5 feet to 8 feet.
Widened path in Beach Drive Tunnel - The existing 2-foot wide sidewalk along the west side of the tunnel would be widened to four or five feet. Not really enough to recommend biking on, but a big improvement for other trail users. There would be signage and some sort of barrier too. The vehicular lanes would be narrowed, which means that another advantage is that cyclists might find slower traffic in the tunnel.
Bridge over Rock Creek south of the Tunnel - This has long been a problematic section of trail since the existing crossing is only 3.5 feet wide. The plan is to build a new pedestrian bridge next to the existing bridge which would create an 8-foot wide trail in this piece. It's unclear why they didn't choose to widen the trail on the bridge to 10 feet.
Porter Street Underpass - Unfortunately, there is very little help coming to this difficult choke point where the trail drops quickly under the road. The plan is to add some center line striping, but not to do the more expensive and intrusive earthwork that would be needed to really address this spot. Maybe we'll have to wait for the bridge to be rebuilt.
Crosswalks - new crosswalks would be built at Broad Branch Road to the north of the parking area entrance and across P Street above the ramp to Beach Drive. Existing crosswalks near the National Zoo and Shoreham Drive would be modified to create shorter crossing distances and improved sightlines and the crosswalks at Jewett street and Shoreham Drive would be raised as a traffic calming measure.
Trail Realignment and Grading - There will some minor realignments of the trail to improve sight distances and approaches to trail segments south of Pierce Mill, south of Shoreham Drive and at the approaches to the Devil's Chair Bridge. In addition, a 180-foot segment south of Calvert Street will be regraded to decrease the slope from 12 percent to 8 percent. Finally an 1100-foot segment south of Pierce Mill will have its vertical profile raised to reduce ponding.
The trail we currently have is 20 years old and so many of these improvements are absolutely necessary. A cyclist experienced a crash on the RCPT this past year that led to her death, and while we don't know the cause of that crash, it is safe to say that letting the trail fall into disrepair will only increase the chances of future crashes.
For non trail improvements, there will be some additions to connecting sidewalks at Beach Drive north of Blagden Avenue, repair of a historic retaining wall and numerous stormwater management projects. Bicycle parking is not included in the EA because installation will be so cheap and of such low impact that it wasn't worth studying; but areas to install bike parking will be addressed in the design phase.
One area of contention in the project was Rose Park. Some people wanted the trail paved at it's current narrow width and others wanted bikes banned in the park. On these issues NPS noted that the current trail was so narrow that trail users often left the trail and trampled on the grass next to it, and thus keeping the trail narrow would do no good. And they wrote:
One of the needs of the project is to maintain support of the diverse trail users and groups including pedestrians, bicyclists, runners, those enjoying nature, etc. Furthermore, NPS Management Policies (NPS(2006), Section 9.2.2 Trails and Walks, recognizes trails and walks as an integral part of each park’s transportation system. Section 9.2.2 also calls for trails and walks to be situated, designed, and managed to allow for a satisfying park experience and allow accessibility by the greatest number of people; and protect park resources. Excluding bicycles from Rose Park would not be compatible with the needs of the proposed action, nor with NPS policies
For those who've been told there is "a perfectly good bike trail right over there," the trail counts show what a misnomer that is as cyclists are a minority of the trail's users. According to trail counts cyclists made up only 34% of those on the "bike trail" while runners (37.2%), walkers (25.5%) and those with dogs and strollers (2.9%) made up the rest. I have no idea why walking with a dog or stroller means you're no longer a walker.
The report is filled with some fascinating historical and archeological information as well as detailed maps of the area that show the names of all the bridges and the location of the Washington City Tunnel Storage Shed (whatever that is). I won't bore you with all the factoids - like the revelation that the hill the Omni hotel sits on is called Shoreham Hill - but you should read the EA if you're interested in such things.
My comments will primarily be in support of the trail rehabilitation as proposed, but I'm going to ask that the relook at the Harvard Street connection. Even if all they can do is build a staircase - with a bike trough obviously - it would be better than missing this opportunity to better connect the trail with the neighborhood across from the zoo.
There will be a public meeting on this tomorrow, Wednesday, December 14, 2011 from 6pm to 8pm at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, Auditorium at
3101 16th Street, NWWashington, DC 2001
Only written comments can be accepted. You may submit comments electronically at NPS’s PEPC website (http://parkplanning.nps.gov/RockCreekTrailRehab) or by mail at the following address:
Austina Casey, Project Manager
District Department of Transportation
Infrastructure Project Management Administration
Attn: Rock Creek Trail EA
55 M Street SE, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20003